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A competition seeks to save Chicago's Thompson Center from demolition

Ignite - Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago, curated by Vladimir Belogolovsky, invites proposals to develop a new vision for a 35-year-old gem of late 20th century architecture.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Dec 01, 2020

If I was asked to come up with a theme for an idea architectural competition even 10-15 years ago, I would not hesitate to ask the participants to exercise their wildest imaginations to – invent the site, invent the program, and invent the form. Not today. We are now living in different times and facing very different challenges. It is no longer sustainable to start from scratch every time. It is no longer ethical to look the other way, while our cities have amassed so many structures that need to be rethought, not replaced. The future is not only about the new. The future is about reinventing the past and the present. That’s why I would rather focus on reinvention than pure invention. The Thompson Center in Chicago is the case in point, and it is urgent, as it faces potential demolition.

- Vladimir Belogolovsky, Curator, Ignite - Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago

‘Ignite- Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago’ invites proposals to reimagine the architecture of this 35-year-old gem of late 20th century architecture| Ignite - Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago, USA | STIRworld
Ignite- Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago invites proposals to reimagine the architecture of this 35-year-old gem of late 20th century architecture Image: Courtesy of

Home to offices of the Illinois state government, the Thompson Center, designed by one of Chicago’s most venerable living architect Helmut Jahn in the city’s Loop area, is in danger of being razed.

An architectural competition titled Ignite- Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago, seeks to reimagine this 17-storey steel and glass structure from 1985, which still stands today as not only one of the grandest public spaces in America but also a primary example of both high-tech and post-Modernist styles of the highest caliber. Apart from state offices, the domed building with its remarkable 160-foot diameter rotunda, energised by moving escalators and glass-enclosed elevators, comprises Chicago Transit Authority train station, basement-level cafeteria, and commerce. (Read more about its architecture here)

The competition aims to reconfigure and expand the building’s spatial programme, which in the present condition is a mismatch to its original ambition of being a truly grand civic space. Comprising bureaucrat’s offices that operate only during working hours, added with high maintenance cost and years of neglect has failed the architecture’s larger purpose.

The interior full height atrium of the Thompson Center designed by Helmut Jahn in 1985 in Chicago| Ignite - Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago, USA | STIRworld
The interior full height atrium of the Thompson Center designed by Helmut Jahn in 1985 in Chicago Image: Rainer Viertlböck

“The Center is only 35-years-old and is not protected by the landmark status. It cannot function successfully in its original capacity. It needs to be enlarged, reprogrammed, and reinvented as a new civic space and landmark, a beacon for progressive Chicago, ” says Belogolovsky, a New York-based critic and the curator of the exhibition. (Vladimir Belogolovsky is also a columnist with STIR who puts together meticulous reviews and compelling conversations bringing the best of architecture from across the globe. Read his articles here)

The competition brief outlines a much more resourceful programme for the center, which could be entirely repurposed through soaring expansion. The proposals can diversify the existing layout by introducing new functions such as museums and galleries, hotels, restaurants, condos, workshare spaces for start-ups, public gardens, and retail hubs. A keen emphasis is defined on bringing adaptive reuse to the existing scheme, in creating public features and green spaces at multiple levels, and towards a holistic vertical living.

“There is still no limit on how imaginative architects can be. But their imaginations must be rooted in real-life issues, which does not mean they need to be grounded. They need to be relevant,” adds Belogolovsky.

Plans and elevations visualised by Helmut Jahn| Ignite - Reinventing Thompson Center, Chicago, USA | STIRworld
Plans and elevations visualised by Helmut Jahn Image: Courtesy of Helmut Jahn

In order to make the existing 1.2 million sq ft complex feasible, the proposed schemes should plan for at least 2.5 million sq ft of space while the typology of these spaces can be any.

The jury panel consists of architect Dong Gong of Beijing-based Vector Architects, American architect John Ronan FAIA, Winka Dubbeldam of design studio Archi-Tectonics NYC, and Chris Bosse of LAVA Laboratory for Visionary Architecture, Sydney.

The competition is hosted by Unfuse, a research initiative dedicated to providing opportunities for designers from all domains to explore ideas that go beyond the boundaries of architectural discipline and enrich the built environment. The results will go through a public voting before being announced in March 2021.

To know more about the competition and registrations, click here.

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